The school we worked with in India is run by a group of sisters, and serves around 1500 girls. Some 600 live too far away to make the journey into school, so they stay in the hostel ‘on campus’.

The 12 of us were there to help to build a dormitory. The 10th and 12th Standard girls have exams at the end of the year, and in order to avoid distractions they require separate sleeping facilities during exam time.

The girls were shy at first: on our first full day in Kamalapuram we were granted a day to rest and acquaint ourselves with our surroundings. At break time I felt a bit daunted on seeing hundreds of girls, each in a pale blue uniform with long dark hair- tied into pigtails with ribbons that identified the year group she belonged to. Evidently they felt the same way: the first couple of girls I tried to speak to edged backwards, not wanting to be the first to speak to the white people. It took a particularly confident girl, Anita, whose English I soon realised was better than most, to start the ball rolling, and the next moment we were ‘swamped’ with hands to shake. That afternoon we managed to involve ourselves in some PE lessons, and from then on there were always students around to share a smile or a dance or enquire after our families.

The girls in the tenth standard had to squash up for lessons while we were there, since we’d been given two of their classrooms to sleep in. One of the teachers told me this wasn’t a problem: it was a small sacrifice to make for their guests. Our building site had the unusual – just above where we would be staying: the dormitory was to be built on the top floor. We’d been given some tools to bring over to help with the building. These were then laid out and blessed ,a completely new concept to some of us, but maybe it was the blessing that guaranteed the success of our visit.

The sisters looked after us really well – our meals were cooked for us and they made sure that we got enough rest. Anyone with a grazed arm or an upset stomach had to be ready to justify why he or she didn’t need to go to hospital. Every day two of our group went to help with the cooking – usually to chop onions or peel potatoes. We got to try dosai- a type of pancake made with ground up rice, idli-dumplings also made from rice, chapati and poori- a kind of deep-fried chapati. Needless to say, owing to the number of Scots in our group, poori mealtimes were the most popular.

Our cook, Rosalie, didn’t speak any English at all so one of the sisters would join us, apparently to translate, but often she would decline to tell us what the cook said for fear of offending us! Four of the older girls had been asked to help for the length of our visit- every mealtime with cooking and serving- and at times the entire kitchen was folded over as Rosalie made jokes about our foreign-ness or our attempts at speaking Tamil or our inability to cook the proper way.

As we are not skilled builders it became our job to shift sand, stones, bricks or whatever else on to the roof. The work could be hard and hot but there was always a lot of fun involved. The two ladies we worked alongside for the whole time we were there, Salomia and Selvi, became real friends to all of us. On several occasions they each invited us to their homes in the evenings where we met their families and became a subject of curiosity. This was also a chance to show off our Tamil by asking people how they were and tell them about our families back home. Most of the time we weren’t understood, but it was appreciated that we would make the effort to learn.

Sister Annie, the headteacher, asked one night how I found it carrying the sand on my head up the stairs. I told her some of the girls were laughing at us as we walked past their classrooms or PE lessons. She said, “They are not laughing, they are just wondering”. Before we’d come the girls had been told we would come to do voluntary work, and that they should watch us and learn from us. However it was more likely that we should learn from these students: their constant smiles, their commitment to study, their innocence and their enthusiasm. Before we left, she told us that since we’d been there she had decided that the girls would now be taking part in some voluntary work: there are programmes offered in which they can go to clean temples, thus getting to know one another better and to learn the value of doing something with the sole purpose of helping somebody out.

I sometimes wonder what the real value of such ventures abroad is, where we become part of a community at least for a while. Perhaps it is the sharing of one another’s cultures; the risk taken in forming a new friendship; from which stems the ability to inspire one another.